Artist and fashion designer Helen Steele married into the Silver Hill duck farm dynasty. She and her husband, Stuart Steele, live on the family farm in Emyvale, Co Monaghan, beside the original farm building where Stuart's parents, Ronald and Lyla, set up the business 50 years ago.
This, and much of the surrounding gardens have since been decorated with graffiti-like designs by the Steele children – artistic endeavours encouraged by their mother. Trees wear spray-painted love hearts on their trunks and wooden fences have been painted in Paul Smith-like stripes.
The playful and colourful results should seem out of place in Emyvale but en route to the farm a Portakabin, the farm shop, sports a Las Vegas-style illumination spelling the word “duck” and a metal cut-out of three ducks on a row, hint at very outside-the-box thinking.
It’s the same maverick thinking that has made Silver Hill Farm ducks unique to the Steele family. Celebrity chefs such as Heston Blumenthal call them “the mother of all ducks”.
The farm supplies 98 per cent of the heads-on birds you see hanging in the windows of Chinatown restaurants in London, Paris and other European capitals. The farm’s duck confit is to be served at the upcoming G8 summit in Co Fermanagh.
Silver Hill is a family business that employs 180 people. The next generation of Steeles eat and sleep duck, dining on the bird every Friday and falling asleep to the quacks every night.
Stuart and Helen don’t look like farmers: he wears Armani suits and designer spectacles and her resort-wear has a celebrity fan base that includes singers Rita Ora and Jessie J.
She did a stage collection for the latter plus a travel collection of leggings and T-shirts. Model of the moment, Cara Delevingne, recently bought a piece in Cannes where Helen’s collection sold out during the recent film festival.
Thanks to their YouTube presence, South Korean – K-pop – band F(x) has helped champion the Irish designer in Asia and Helen now has 20 stockists worldwide with the Middle East being strong.
Stuart met Helen in Dublin nightclub Lillie’s Bordello, having spotted her earlier that same evening in Cafe en Seine. It was meant to be, he says. He proposed after only six weeks and Helen was married at the 23. He was 27. They’re still together 18 years later.
“We were very lucky,” he says adding that he wouldn’t advise anyone to get married after six weeks. The couple has three children; Chloe (16), Halle (11) and Ronnie (eight) as well as a pug called Rocky and Keku the cat.
In the kitchen, the gurgling of a fish tank, home to Sock and Sucky Su, provides a soothing soundtrack. A restful sage green SieMatic kitchen, at least 15 years old, still feels current.
Helen’s art hangs on the walls beside the kid’s drawings. On the adjacent wall is a geochron clock showing the hour and light patterns all over the world by time zone. A present from Helen to Stuart, it was to show the kids where their parents were when travelling abroad and what time it was there. Stuart spends a lot of time in Asia and Helen’s core business is in the Middle East. It worked for just one day, Stuart claims, and has yet to be repaired.
On the same wall is a cuckoo clock, from Switzerland, that chimes with the decor throughout, which is a bit cuckoo – but in a good way.
In the sitting room, Bang and Olufsen speakers and a TV, the size of a large picture window, dominate the space. A raised hearth has been framed in brushed stainless steel that Helen had made locally.
The house is unpretentious and roomy in the way that only country homes can be where space isn’t so much of a premium. It has been extended many times, so much so that the first-floor landing runs outside the original wall of the house.
Upstairs, Helen has commandeered an entire room to house her clothing and accessories. There are shoes raised on skateboards, smoked mirror wardrobes and enough accessories to turn any girls head. Helen’s friends love coming to play and you can understand why.
Helen’s collection is available in Costume. Silver Hill duvets, pillows and cushions, as used by Adare Manor, can be ordered by phone. You can cover them in Helen Steele prints. 047-866 54, 10am-6pm, silverhillfarm.ie. You can buy Silver Hill duck in Tesco and Dunnes Stores